Temple Israel becomes guardian of Holocaust Torah
Temple Israel receives historic scrollBy Suzanne Laurent email@example.com
PORTSMOUTH — Rabbi David Ross Senter proudly opened the Holy Ark in the sanctuary of Temple Israel Portsmouth and unwrapped a very special piece of history — a Memorial Trust Torah Scroll.
The Torah, received by Rabbi Senter on March 25, is one of 1,564 Czech Torah Scrolls that survived World War II, and it is now on permanent loan from the Memorial Scrolls Trust of the Westminster Synagogue in London, England.
In 1938, Hitler annexed the northern and western segments of Czechoslovakia and by 1939 Hitler’s forces occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia. The culture of the Nazi occupation in these territories was somewhat different. In other areas, confiscated ritual items were destroyed. In Bohemia and Moravia, these items were carefully catalogued and stored in the Jewish Museum of Prague, renamed by the Nazis as the Jewish Central Museum.
Among the collections of the Nazi’s Jewish Central Museum were more than 1,800 Torah Scrolls, confiscated from the decimated Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia. After the war, the confiscated Torah Scrolls remained in storage in an unused synagogue located in Michle outside Prague.
In 1963, a cash strapped communist government was looking to raise funds. Eric Estorick, an art dealer, arranged for the purchase of 1,564 Torah Scrolls using funds provided by philanthropist Ralph Yablon. The sale was finalized in 1964, and the Torahs were donated to the Westminster Synagogue in London.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust was formed to determine the disposition of these sacred texts. A team of expert scribes were employed to determine which scrolls were Kosher (fit for ritual use) and which scrolls were more suited as a memorial. The scrolls were then distributed to synagogues, educational institutions and museums around the world.
Rabbi Senter will officially announce the arrival of the Holocaust Torah on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, on Sunday, April 19 at the temple.
Earlier this year, Dr. Ira Schwartz, cultural endowment fund chairman of Temple Israel, asked Senter what had been the best Yom HaShoah program of his career.
“The rededication of a Holocaust Torah,” Senter told him.
Senter, a resident of Dover, has extensive experience working with Memorial Scrolls in his previous congregations. At Beth Shalom of Pompton Lakes, N.J., he designed an educational program with the Memorial Scroll as the centerpiece.
In Manetto Hill Jewish Center in Plainville, N.Y., Senter led the congregation through a process that led to the restoration of the scroll, which was on loan to that congregation.
Schwartz enthusiastically replied that Temple Israel should obtain and rededicate a Holocaust Scroll.
“I explained to Ira that the Torahs had been distributed over 40 years ago and that they rarely become available,” Senter said. “But his proposal intrigued me.”
He contacted Susan Boyer, the United States curator of the Memorial Scrolls Trust. She informed him that a Memorial Scroll was available due to the unfortunate closure of a custodian congregation and encouraged Senter to apply for guardianship.
On Feb. 9, Senter met with Jeffrey Ohrenstein, chairman of the Memorial Scrolls Trust, in Phoenix, Ariz.
“I explained the unique nature of Temple Israel and gave the reasons why I believe we are the most compelling candidate for guardianship of this sacred scroll,” Senter said.
Temple Israel is the oldest permanent Jewish house of worship in New Hampshire and the building is listed on three historic registers as a landmark structure.
Temple Israel traces its roots to the first Jewish settlers in the state, Senter said.
“According to our history, Abraham and Rachel Isaac settled in Portsmouth in the late 1780s,” he said.
The early families of Temple Israel met in homes and then rented various venues. Temple Israel purchased its current structure in 1910. The temple is currently the center of Jewish life for 29 Seacoast communities.
“As an historic structure in a tourist area, we attract regular visitors,” Senter said. “We also have a working relationship with Strawbery Banke Museum, which features a restoration of the Shapiro House, which was the home of one of the founders of our congregation.”
Senter received the scroll March 25 and carefully wrapped it in his grandparents’ wedding tallit (prayer shawl) and his and his wife Elissa’s wedding tallit, to bring it to Portsmouth.
The Holocaust Torah was shown to the Hebrew School children and Senter said there have been “some interesting connections.”
“One of our Hebrew School teachers, Ruth Spiro, is a direct descendent of Rabbi Yitzchak Shapiro, chief rabbi of Prague in the 1690s,” he said.
And, one of our board members’ daughter, Allison Lamm, said this “could’ve been Nana’s Torah,” he added. “Her great-grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and her sister, Kendall Lamm, will be bat mitzvahed using the Torah this summer.”
Two other meaningful things happened to Senter around the Memorial Scroll.
“When the scroll was opened in 1964, there was a chilling note found inside,” he said. “It read, ‘Please God help us in these troubled times.’”
Senter said when he first examined the scroll, he opened it to Genesis 50:25, the Joseph Narrative. It reads, “And Joseph made the children of Israel swear, ‘God will certainly redeem you and you will bring out my remains (essence) from here.’”
Also, Allison Lamm noticed the letter “mem” was made smaller in the script.
“This means don’t put your fire, or faith, on display,” Senter said. “The Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said the fire that we have through religion is personal in our hearts and not to be put on display.”
Likewise, Senter said, the Torahs are meant to be used, and not put on display in a museum.
Senter said there will be year-long programming around the Memorial Torah and that the temple will “adopt” the people lost in the communities of Bohemia and Moravia, remembering them each year at Yom HaShoah.
“Barney Share (president of Temple Israel’s congregation) said this is the most exciting thing since the purchase of the building in 1910,” Senter said.